You’ve probably noticed a huge change in local search results lately. In what has been called the “biggest change to Google’s local search ranking algorithm since 2014,” Google has really shaken up the local pack and finder.

 

You’ve probably noticed a huge change in local search results lately. In what has been called the “biggest change to Google’s local search ranking algorithm since 2014,” Google has really shaken up the local pack and finder.

The update has been nicknamed “Possum,” because businesses are often filtered out of search results. This causes the business owner to think their listing has been removed, even though it is only being filtered (or playing possum).

“Possum” is the name given to an unconfirmed but documented update which appeared to most significantly impact Google’s local pack and local finder results. Because the update was never officially confirmed by Google, local SEOs have been left to hypothesize about the potential update’s purpose and concrete effects.

As I mentioned, "Possum" is an update to Google’s local search rankings algorithm, and it decides when businesses will show up in local search results, sometimes filtering business listings out of search results. This means that some local businesses might not always appear for the same search.

Many have perceived Possum’s purpose to be a diversification of local results. While the assumed update certainly did have this effect, one of its challenging “side effects” was the filtering out of legitimate business listings if they happen to share Google categories with other entities in the same building. One study of 1,307 businesses suggested that Possum affected 64% of Google’s local results.

The update will filter out similar listings for an industry and location in the same way it would normally filter out a business’s second listing. This would happen if you have more than one Google My Business page, or if your listing was duplicated because of a change of NAP (name, address and phone number). Google is taking this a step further, though.

On the organic side of search, MozCast documented a simultaneous shakeup of the organic results. This may have been part of Possum or it could have stemmed from a separate but simultaneous update.

Impacts of Possum

"Possum" is affecting these types of businesses:

1. Businesses Outside The City Limits.

It used to be difficult for local businesses to show up for location-based keywords if they weren’t based inside that location. For instance, if a Restaurant place was located just outside of Görükle, it used to be difficult to get that business to show up in searches for “Restaurant  Görükle.” The "Possum" algorithm update has changed this though. Now, businesses can show up for those types of searches even if they are slightly outside of the city or town for which they want to show up.

2. Businesses that are located at the same address (or in the same building) as a similar business.

If two similar businesses are located in the same building, they probably won’t show up in the same search. For instance, if two dentists are located in the same office building (even if they aren’t affiliated with each other or at the same practice) they probably won’t show up for the same search.

Google has always tried to filter out duplicate listings (if your business has more than one listing on Google My Business or if three doctors work in the same practice, each doctor has their own listing and the practice has its own listing). Now, though, they’re going a step further.

3. Businesses owned by the same parent company.

We aren’t sure if this will be the case for every business, but one local SEO expert found that a dentist who had two offices within the same city had one of their offices filtered out of the search results each time he performed a search for them. This is probably because, even though the two offices had different NAPs and websites, they were owned by the same parent company.

One final thing to mention about these changes is that if your business is being filtered, you can often fix this by zooming in on the map. Give it a try!

The Local SEO industry reported the following phenomena  which were hypothesized to stem from this major update:

Filtered Results Based On Affiliation

Pre-Possum, it was normal for multiple businesses sharing affiliations (same Google category and located within the same building) to appear in the same local pack/local finder result. The local pack results are the set of (typically three) local business listings that appear in conjunction with Google’s organic results when a query has a local intent. The local finder results are the expanded results reached by clicking the “more places” link at the bottom of the local packs.

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For example, 3 dentist at Görükle St. could all potentially appear in the same local finder results for the same query. But, post-Possum, Google filtered out many of these affiliated listings at the automatic zoom level of Google Maps. Now, Google might show just one, or possibly two, of the dentist at the location, instead of all three of them. This loss of local pack/finder rankings may cause business owners to fear that their Google My Business listing has been removed, but by zooming in on the map, the listing pops back into view within the local finder results.

One example of this filtering phenomenon comes from a thread in the Moz Q&A forum. A fishing charter business sharing a dock building with a number of other businesses represented by the Google category “fishing charter” abruptly disappeared from the local results. Only by zooming in on the map or by choosing user filters like “Top Rated” would the business reappear in its former high-ranking spot in the local finder. Since the time of this forum discussion, the business in question has regained its former visibility in the local pack/finder views, calling into question whether Google is continuing to experiment with this filter over time.

Businesses Beyond City Borders Move Up The Rankings

Respected Local SEO practitioner Yavuz Camgöz documented the phenomenon of increased local rankings for businesses that have a postal mailing address within a given city but which are physically located beyond Google’s concept of that city’s borders. You can see how Google demarcates a city’s borders by looking the city up in Google Maps and observing the area shown in pink:

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In one example of this borderlands scenario, Yavuz Camgöz noted a business had jumped from #18 to #8 in the local finder view. This is notable because it has long been observed in the Local SEO industry that companies beyond city borders have little chance of earning local rankings for queries originating in those cities or containing those city names.

Additional Theories About Possum's Effects

Several additional theories have been put forth in the Local SEO industry regarding the effects of Possum. These include an increase in the sensitivity of searcher proximity—the distance between the physical location of a human searcher and the businesses Google shows in their local pack results.

Additionally, there is some thought that Google’s local filter is running more independently of their organic filter post-Possum, in that businesses are earning high pack rankings for listings pointing to website pages that have low or “filtered” organic rankings. Over the years, the degree of overlap and/or separateness of Google’s local pack and organic results algorithms has been a matter of ongoing debate. At present, it is believed that the organic strength of a business strongly impacts local pack rankings. Because of this, the observation of some businesses doing well in the local pack despite low organic rankings is interesting, but, again, only speculatively tied to Possum.

Because it seems Google may still be testing the algorithm and the way local businesses show up (or don’t) in search results, there’s really no way to say for sure that we know this is how the search results will be forever. Google likes to change things up on us from time to time, so this could change, or Google could tweak the algorithm as they test it.

How to know if you’ve been hit by Possum

If your Google My Business listing formerly enjoyed high local pack/finder rankings that vanished on September 1, 2016, Possum is a likely candidate.

If your business shares a category with another business in the same building (even if you have a different suite number or other address element), do a search for your typical keyword phrase (like “dentist Görükle”) and then zoom in on the Maps view next to the local finder to discover if your listing reappears. If your answer is “yes” to all of these criteria, chances are good that you are feeling the effects of the Possum filter.

How to recover from Possum

Clean up your local citation information.

Make sure your business doesn’t have duplicate listings or incorrect information online. If you do, you are more likely to confuse Google and other search engines. If your information is accurate, you may have a better chance of showing up than your competition, especially if their information isn’t accurate.

The "Possum" update seems to have put a greater importance on relevance. If Google is filtering certain businesses out of the search results, the businesses that show up are likely the ones with more relevance. How can you prove relevance?

One way to prove relevance is to make sure your local citation information and categories on listing pages (like Google My Business, Yelp, Yahoo! Local, and Bing Local) are correct and relevant. Build new local citations and clean up existing listings, removing duplicates and incorrect information.

Unfortunately, there is no easy solution to regaining your former visibility if Google is filtering out your listing due to shared affiliation or location. Adding a real or fictitious suite number in an effort to differentiate your address does not seem to lift the filter in any way, leaving you with three possible options to consider:

  1. Remember that Google is always aiming to show the most relevant business to the searcher. Improving your overall Local SEO (including your Domain Authority, links, content, the accuracy and spread of your citations, and the number of your native Google reviews) could help to “convince” Google that if they are only going to show one business in your category and building, it should be yours. Possum represents a good opportunity to do an audit of a competitor who isn’t being filtered out by Possum, to see if they have achieved certain metrics that are making them Google’s most relevant answer.
  2. Because one of the triggers for Possum appears to be the presence of multiple businesses in the same category and at the same location, you might choose to experiment with changing your primary Google My Business category. For example, if your current primary category is “General Practice Attorney” and you are being filtered out because a stronger competitor in your building is also using that category, you might test switching to “Elder Law Attorney” if no one else at your location has chosen this designation. *Be advised, changing categories can result in massive ranking and traffic fluctuations and should only be undertaken with a clear understanding of potential negative impacts and of Google’s category guidelines. However, if your traffic has already gone to zero due to filtering, experimentation could prove informative and beneficial.
  3. Because Possum has set the stage for filtering listings based on shared affiliation, this calls into question the wisdom of building multi-practitioner listings for medical and legal practices, real estate agencies and similar business models. If Google will only show a single listing at your location, and the listing for the main business gets filtered out in favor of the listing of one of the partners at your practice, this can create a scenario of inequality in the workplace and lead to consumer confusion. Given the impacts of filtering, the Local SEO industry needs to continue to study the risks and benefits of multi-practitioner listings, including how the diversification of Google categories may impact results post-Possum.

Other facts about Google Possum

The name of this update was coined by Local Visibility System’s Phil Rozek as fitting the new scenario in which local business listings appear to go missing but really still exist—in effect, the listings are just “playing possum.”

Very few studies have been conducted surrounding the impacts of Possum on either the local or organic search engine results, highlighting the need for further investigation.

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